My Dad’s sister and her husband were in the Navy. When I was very young, we would them once a year at Torpoint, just across the water from their base at Devonport, to play with my cousins. We never talked about their Navy duties. When Bob and Ruby left the Navy, they emigrated to Australia. I was around 11 at the time. I’ve seen Ruby twice since then, and they are now both dead. That’s the nearest I have to a military connection.
I don’t approve of war – it rarely solves anything. However, I’m not a pacifist. Had I been alive in World War 2, I would have found it hard to argue against fighting the Germans. But other wars seem harder to justify. I’m glad I don’t have to take those kinds of decisions.
I’m also not keen on ceremonies. I’d rather be informal. I don’t like suits, prefer not to wear a tie, and definitely don’t do caps! (God’s sense of humour, that I was born to Salvation Army officer parents and became an officer myself). However, I recognise there is a place for such things, and Remembrance is definitely one of those places.
Over my years in The Salvation Army, I’ve attended many Remembrance parades, usually as a member of the band. But it was a bit of a shock when we arrived to our appointment as officers of Hawick Corps to discover that the Salvation Army officer was padre for the local parade. I suddenly had to take the whole thing a lot more seriously. The service sheet said, “Scripture Sentences” – but that seemed rather Anglican and I was a Salvation Army Officer.
I did some research on current conflicts, particularly any connections to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (the local regiment), chose a short Bible Reading and wrote a 3minute reflection. Unfortnately, no one told me that we also visited the Boer War memorial, and I was supposed to “say a few words” and pray. I winged it the first year, but made sure to do my homework the year after. My speaking at the main service was well received – they invited me back for six more years.
So where are all these rambling thoughts leading? Last Saturday evening, we watched the Festival of Remembrance. I’ve often heard comments that it exalts the Armed Forces and glorifies war. Whilst it could in previous years have been taken that way, the minimal personnel present meant that it was not the case this year. And the reflections of individuals – serving personnel, veterans, families and historical civilians – meant that it was very much about remembering the people who suffer in war.
On Sunday morning, we stepped out shortly before 11am to read, pray and observe the two-minutes’ silence with the nation. We then went back indoors to watch the remainder of the ceremony at Whitehall. Before then end, I was in tears, not at the emotion of the occasion, but at the empty street. Whilst the lack of audience had enhanced the remembering in the Festival, it seemed to diminish the impact of the Service.
In that moment, I – who have no connection with war or military service – realised the importance of gathering to remember. In all my years of attending Remembrance Parades, I have never heard the veterans glorify the fighting. There may be stories of heroism, but mostly the conversation is about the comradeship of Brothers (and more recently Sisters) in Arms. And more than anything else, of those who have not returned.
I have always believed that we must remember the cost of war, as a deterrent against escalating arguments to full-blown conflict, and as an incentive to find peaceful was of co-existing. But the bleakness of this year’s ceremonies has convinced me that to be truly meaningful, remembrance must take place in community.
Let us pray that next year we may have the privilege of standing shoulder to shoulder with those who have lost loved ones, and to work side-by-side in the cause of peace.